Sacks wrote what he called ‘romantic science’. Not romantic in the sense of romantic love, but romantic in the sense of the romantic poets, who used narrative to describe the subtleties of human nature, often in contrast to the enlightenment values of quantification and rationalism.
His final book, On the Move, was the most honest, as he revealed he was gay, shy, and in his younger years, devastatingly handsome but somewhat troubled. A long way from the typical portrayal of the grey-bearded, kind but eccentric neurologist.
The reality is that Sacks’s role in my career was neither surprising nor particularly special. He inspired a generation of neuroscientists to see brain science as a gateway to our common humanity and humanity as central to the scientific study of the brain.
“If we wish to know about a man, we ask ‘what is his story–his real, inmost story?’–for each of us is a biography, a story. Each of us is a singular narrative, which is constructed, continually, unconsciously, by, through, and in us–through our perceptions, our feelings, our thoughts, our actions; and, not least, our discourse, our spoken narrations. Biologically, physiologically, we are not so different from each other; historically, as narratives–we are each of us unique.”
― Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales
Here’s a profile of Spalding Gray by Oliver Sacks that appeared in the New Yorker this April. “The Catastrophe: Spalding Gray’s Brain Injury.” The subtitle is a bit misleading, you might think it deals with neuroscience. What it really chronicles is a slow, but seemingly unavoidable descent toward suicide. It is very dark. Those that recall Spaldings performances during his popularity will recall that he was the essence of life. When he first disappeared I seem to recall the press treated it as if it were a mystery. To hear this recounting is chilling. Highly recommended, if you’re up for it. Not recommended if you’re depressed.